I think maybe we were too harsh on Byron Hall.

6 Jun

In case you don’t know who Byron Hall is, he wrote a role-playing game called F.A.T.A.L. (From Another Time, Another Land, or you may be more familiar with the original acronym, Fantasy Adventure To Adult Lechery, which I like better because it is more honest. The game contains no calendars or time-lines, and no maps, no other times or other lands, but it does contain much lecherous content.)

Byron has received a lot of negative attention for writing this game. He’s been lambasted, lampooned, ridiculed, insulted, and then insulted again much more fervently. Some of it is deserved. There are rules that start on page 50 and describe what happens when a character tries to sodomize a newborn elf. This means that one of Byron’s NPCs or one of his friends’ PCs decided to sodomize a newborn elf. Byron and his friends thought this was too important an in-game event to be left up to the twisted imagination of the GM and players. They wanted a set of standardized rules that they could reference when such things happened. It seems they expected these types of things to happen often enough that they would reference these rules. This is a pretty huge indictment of their characters (not fictional characters, or rather it reflects poorly on their in game characters, but also on their real life personality, as in “Byron and his friends are people of questionable character”).

As a quick aside, Byron’s response to this criticism is that those rules were included out of a desire for completeness, a desire that actions that one would expect to typically happen in a fantasy medieval Europe setting would have clearly defined results. But after carefully going over the whole 1003 page game, I found no rules for how much wheat or barley one could grow on a given area of land, or how much meat one could expect to get from butchering an animal. There is a skill, Milking, but no rule for how much milk a cow generally gives. There isn’t even a skill for butchering. An entire page however is spent on the skill Urinating, with rules for how far and how accurately one may urinate.

When I play fantasy adventure games, the question of, “Should we go hungry and suffer hunger penalties, or butcher one of our pack animals, eat that meat and abandon that gear?” comes up. This is a question that I have asked, that my players have asked. When Byron and his crew play fantasy adventure games, the question of, “Can I pee on that dude who is 5 feet away from my character?” comes up.

Some of the criticism wasn’t deserved. When it was pointed out to him that some of what he and his friends considered to be funny in-jokes were actually wildly offensive racism, he removed them. He may be racist enough to have found them funny, but he didn’t write that stuff himself, and he wasn’t malicious enough to leave it in further editions. It’s a game about lechery, not racism.

But back on track, I think that despite all their failings as RPG authors, we may have been too harsh on Byron Hall and his cronies.

Why would I think such a thing?

I recently watched Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys, Flesh for Frankenstein, and Blood for Dracula. (Actually the last two were produced by Warhol, and directed by Paul Morrissey.) I can’t explain why I decided to watch them all, pretty much back to back, but I did. Maybe I desperately needed to see Joe Dallesandro’s buttocks, a lot. Seriously, boys and girls of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” film making efforts, we get it. You love Joe Dallesandro’s butt. It was very important for you to share that love with us, and you did. Maybe I watched the films for gems like Udo Kier’s line, “In order to understand death, you have to fuck life in the gall bladder.” Probably I was just tired of seeing articles on-line declaring that Inception was one of the most confusing films of all time, and I wanted to watch films that were truly mind bendingly confusing.

Whatever insanity possessed me, I watched them all.

Incidentally, the racism in Flesh for Frankenstein is the scariest part of the film. Udo Kier (playing Frankenstein) goes on and on about finding Serbian parts for his masterpiece, to create a new and pure race. In 1974 they had no way of knowing about the ethnic cleansing that would happen roughly 20 years later, but watching it today I know about what happened in Bosnia, and got seriously creeped out by it all.

And while watching the last in my triple feature of Andy Warhol films, Blood for Dracula, I thought, “Is there a game that exists that would encourage you and your friends to tell this sort of story? The game would have to have three pages of rules for the use of a skill called Sexual Adeptness. It would have to have long and wildly medically inaccurate combat charts depicting strange and often ridiculously gory injuries in combat. The game would have to have bizarre and grotesque random magical effects and random magical ingredients so that after a series of accidents performing ancient pagan rites you could end up with a character that is sickly, but immortal, provided he can feed on the blood of virgin girls. And then when he accidentally feeds on the blood of those who have been deflowered by Joe Dallesandro, the character can deliver the famous Udo Kier line, ‘The blood of these whores is killing me.’”

In short, if I wanted to play a role-playing game that accurately portrayed the world of an Andy Warhol horror film, I should play F.A.T.A.L.

And that was when I felt bad about all the grief we’ve been giving Byron Hall. We. I’ve done it too. Heck, I did it further up in this article. Yes, we’ve given similar grief to Andy Warhol and Udo Kier, but Andy Warhol and Udo Kier both also get a lot of respect. I mean tons of respect. Udo Kier’s career is one you would murder for. The prices that Andy Warhol’s work commands would make you weep. And they (Andy and Udo) seem to be perverts, perhaps up there on the pervert scale with Byron Hall and his friends. But Andy Warhol and Udo Kier get accolades, often for perverted stuff, and Byron Hall? He only got derision.

But, you may be thinking, Andy Warhol did not just do perverted movies. He also did many praiseworthy things. And Byron Hall has only produced this perverted game, that even if it weren’t perverted, would still be quite risible. Not so, pages 17 to 33, wherein most of the fantasy races are described were interesting, and not very perverted. True, most of the game is risible and/or perverse, but it is not true that Byron Hall has only made risible and/or perverse contributions to the field of fantasy gaming.

Even the instances in which Byron tries and fails have inspired interesting lines of thought. He wanted to depict a Europe that was self contained, so no Christianity, no contact at all with Africa, Asia, or the Middle East. And for a moment I thought, “This will be interesting. He gave some types of dwarves and elves innate magical powers. So he recognizes that fairy tales and fairy rites represent the remnants of pre-Christian European religion. If a Shinto practitioner can be said to follow his religion when he leaves a dish of sake out for the kami, then Europeans who leave dishes of milk out for the fairies should be viewed as following the rites of their ancient religion.” But he couldn’t keep it up. Again and again he sites Christian religious institutions and Christian gender attitudes.

So I thought, “What if he had done it? What if he had actually depicted a Medieval Europe, devoid of Christianity?” What was Saint Vladimir like before he accepted Christianity and baptized all the Kievan Rus? Well, he had at least 8 wives and something like 800 concubines. Oh, I see now why Byron didn’t try to write about a Europe without Christian gender values. It doesn’t seem like there were any women in Kiev that could have been raped or any women that were whores. But then Christianity came to Kiev and said, clear off ladies. You can’t all live off the king any more. He has no concubines and one wife at a time. The rest of you will need to find jobs (sometimes as whores) or find lesser husbands (who can’t protect you from ravishers as well as a king’s palace can). So I see why Byron failed. He’s a pervert and he thinks rape and whores are more lecherous than harems full of Viking babes. But I personally like harems full of Viking babes (would that I had one), and more than that, I think it would be interesting to think about what things like marriage, family, and religion would be like if Europe were alone in a fantasy world. Heck we might have to cut out Greek and Roman gods as well, since its likely they were imports from the Yoruba and Egyptians.

If people can come away from Lonesome Cowboys thinking, “I know more than I ever hoped to know about Joe Dallesandro’s buttocks, but at least now I have seen this noteworthy cinematic fumbling by this disturbed artistic genius,” then I think maybe Byron Hall deserves some of the same slack. Byron Hall may not be a genius, but F.A.T.A.L. is definitely noteworthy disturbed fumbling.

To End: I have also recently been possessed of the insane desire to get my hands on and read at least some of Henry Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, a 15,000+ page epic of naked little girls fighting for their freedom against graphically depicted slavers and torturers. It is considered a very important work of outsider art produced by a deeply disturbed recluse who suffered years of abuse as a child. I’m sure as I read it that I will remind myself, there is a role-playing game with rules for these sorts of things. It isn’t a very well written or popular game. But it exists.

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7 Responses to “I think maybe we were too harsh on Byron Hall.”

  1. thejamminjabber 8 June 2011 at 11:30 am #

    Love those Paul Morrissey movies. They are great fun.

  2. Lector Peregrinus 24 May 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    This is an excellent post, and I say that as someone with quite a bit of experience criticizing FATAL. When I was (not much) younger and (not much) stupider, I used to slog through the game with a friend, looking for things to criticize and take down. This got me wondering, for the first time in years, if we weren’t using an elephant gun on an ant.

    I think you’re right in the abstract – he deserves some slack, but not much at all. For me, the thing wasn’t that he created the game. After all, as you mentioned, there have been far more famous perverts whose work has become respected or honored despite (or even perhaps because of) their myriad weirdnesses.

    The last straw for me was his response to MacLennan and Sartin’s review of FATAL. There were certainly reasons to critique the review: the authors had admitted in their opening gambit that they weren’t so much critiquing the game as taking it down for yuks, but that didn’t excuse some of the bile that followed. Hall’s response was so high-handed and arrogant that it almost made the review look retroactively appropriate. (Almost. The man’s baby was being insulted, and if he hadn’t bristled at all I’d have wondered why he bothered to make the thing in the first place.) Moreover, his general attitude, and that of his friend Burnout, was basically to dismiss the complaints about racism and sexism as either “historically accurate” or much ado about nothing – in the latter case, as you say, it’s good that he removed them, but in the former case he was either just trying to hide the actual reason, or else he honestly had no idea that there’s a difference between portraying historical discrimination accurately and turning it into part of your game system.

    I might be a little less sensitive to this because, very often, the attitude of a creative person matters to me as much as their work. I know this is not a popular belief among people who are serious about art appreciation (in any genre), and I don’t claim to be rid of hypocrisy in this. Arrogant bastards can produce brilliant work: this isn’t in contention. Suffice it to say that I’m not the audience for that.

    Anyway, let me stop rambling. Like I said, excellent, well-thought-out post. Thanks for this.

  3. Sheikh Jahbooty 10 June 2013 at 1:51 am #

    I wonder why the ping-back system didn’t catch this one.

    http://hoper.dnsalias.net/tdc/index.php?post/2013/05/31/FATAL

    My favorite part was: Mais surtout le ton

    I’m experiencing schadenfreude. I feel bad that Hoper had the misfortune to read FATAL, but the essay he wrote about it was really funny.

  4. H@ell.com 7 January 2014 at 9:49 pm #

    Just remember: If you used FATAL’s tables, you could calculate the circumference and depth of a baby’s anus.

    I don’t think anyone can be too hard on someone who creates a game like that.

  5. Xtheunknow 8 February 2014 at 6:56 pm #

    What h@ell said. Everything I’ve seen and heard about Hall tells me no one being ” to hard on the poor guy”

  6. plus1d6 22 February 2016 at 7:41 pm #

    Incredibly late reading this but I had to post. Yes, some of the stuff he’s done is quite interesting in the source books- the pure amount of detail put into equipment descriptions and race descriptions is amazing.
    But after having been part of one game of FATAL- where one player forced her head up a peasants ass and got killed by the town guard, one got cursed to be at 0 hp but essentially immortal, my character managed to break off two other characters genitalia, and the final 3 chars died in a literally burning threesome- and already in another round (hell, we’ve already had someone try to sex up a merchant for a better price only to rape them to death thanks to rolls and FATALs rules..) I have to say that the game is pretty messed up. Essentially the one point that sums it up is being a Combat-Rapist would essentially be a viable path to take in FATAL. You could sex any living(or possibly unliving) thing to death.

    • Sheikh Jahbooty 2 March 2016 at 1:10 pm #

      You tried to play it?

      I am a firm advocate of the idea that my fellow gamers and game designers deserve to be treated with fairness and compassion, but you, gentle being, were polite enough to extend to Byron Hall the courtesy of actually trying his game.

      I imagine it was at least as stupid and gross as you described.

      I salute you.

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